Elizabeth Castelli, associate professor of religion at Barnard College, presented the Department of Classics’ Winslow Lecture on Thursday, Feb. 24, in the Kirner-Johnson Red Pit. Castelli explained that her lecture, originally titled “Martyrdom and Meaning-Making in Ancient and Contemporary Christian Contexts,” would take on slightly different concepts and topics; her discussion would not be limited to Christian contexts but rather extended to contemporary U.S. foreign policy and the use of torture.
Castelli began by discussing the familiarity of the “martyr;” “the martyr story is really hardwired into Western and Christian culture,” she said. From a New York Times review of a Bruce Springsteen’s 2003 concert in East Rutherford, N. J., to the infamous 1968 Esquire cover depicting Mohammed Ali as St. Sebastian, American popular culture has embraced the idea of the “martyr.”
Martyr allusions are so common, Castelli explained, that once you start looking for them, you will see them everywhere. “What are we to make of the martyr figure we see everywhere in Western and Christian society? What does the idea and utilization of the martyr do for the current U.S. political setting,” she asked. “It flips martyrdom and looks at the other side; what does this mean?”
Castelli then went on to discuss the role of the martyr and how it brings up a discourse of power and power struggle. As martyrdom serves as the cornerstone of Western culture, the idea and importance of the martyr has led to some of the most controversial topics of the twentieth century, including the idea of state sponsored violence. Castelli asked the audience to think back to the controversy surrounding the Timothy McVeigh trial and the trial for the bombers of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya; the courts’ fear was that these individuals would be seen as martyrs, only perpetuating violent behavior, she said.
Martyrs evoke juxtaposing ideas and emotions, making them even more inspirational and suspicious. People are intrigued by their refusal to accept the dominant system.
Similarly, the American public is ambivalent toward their compulsion to align themselves with or against power, Castelli explained. She then used this idea to compare martyrs and tyrants. “They have one thing in common: compulsion.”
Castelli then delved into an extensive analysis and discussion of the Federal Religious Freedom Act. The movement that brought the act to Congress seven years ago, she explained, “weaved together the martyr story and the story of the United States as a religious sanctuary.” According to Castelli, although many Congressional officials attempted to separate religion and politics, making religion a neutral issue, this simply cannot be done. Through the legislation, one can see two interlocking narratives at work: Christian martyrdom and religious persecution in the United States, she concluded.
The “persecution complex” or “persecution process” has evolved over time as the definition of persecution has changed. This process has evolved from oscillating, flip and examining the idea of the martyr and looking at the opposite side of “martyrdom” in a critical way. “It is built on a series of opposing binaries…including good versus evil,” she explained. “A continual turn of the tables is required in order for both martyrdom and persecution to occur.”
This process, according to Castelli, is the focus of contemporary American foreign policy. The persecution complex has become “the language of the law, especially when it seeks to define what it seeks to contain, “that” being religious persecution.
Castelli then explained how, through the idea of the persecution complex, there is a “deep logical connection” between the “profound contradiction” of torture versus religious freedom in U.S. policymaking. She said that she was not excusing or rationalizing the United States’ use of torture but rather pointing out how these two conflicting ideas both contain roots that can be traced back to the idea of the Christian martyr. Both torture and religious freedom both contain the idea of powerlessness versus domination, juxtapositions intrinsic to the idea of the martyr.
Castelli received her A.B. in English and American Literature from Brown University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from the Claremont Graduate School. Her recent publications include Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (2004) and Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence, an anthology co-edited with Janet R. Jakobsen (2004).
A specialist in biblical studies and the cultural history of early Christianity, she has become increasingly interested in the "afterlives" of early Christian texts and figures in the contemporary U.S. context. She is currently at work on a new book: Persecution Complexes: Identity Politics, the Language of Victimization, and Christian Activists on the Global Stage.
... so, where were the Classics?